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Kotaku's Critique of Racism in The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles Misses the Mark

Kotaku's Critique of Racism in The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles Misses the Mark - Article

by Paul Broussard , posted on 18 September 2021 / 1,941 Views

If you’ve watched the movie Django Unchained, you’re likely well aware of the effects that a fictional piece of media can have if it puts in effort to accurately capture the societal flaws and issues of the setting's day and age. Even if you haven’t watched it before, you may be at least familiar with the movie as a powerful depiction of racism in pre-emancipation America. The story of Django and Schultz would have lost most, if not all, of its impact if it did not portray the United States - and its horrendous treatment of African Americans - as it was during that time. That meant being faithful to the actions and words of the day; even racially charged words that still carry plenty of weight in the modern era. Even if those words by themselves are offensive, we understand that they are necessary inclusions to accurately portray the reality of the era, and failing to do so would be whitewashing the story.

Or, at least, most of us did. Somewhat predictably, Django Unchained's release resulted in a fair amount of pearl-clutching from individuals shocked that such racially charged words would be put on the big screen at all. A number of high profile outlets and a sizable chunk of individuals on social media were ultimately unable to get past the mere presence of the depiction of racism as itself problematic. While these voices were, ultimately, in the minority, it speaks to a problem of being unable to face hard truths to examine our past mistakes.

And, as the reception to The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles demonstrates, history is nothing if not predictable. The most recent and egregious example of this can be found in Kotaku’s review of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles. If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s set in Victorian era Britain and revolves around a Japanese exchange student, Naruhodo Ryunosuke. Ryunosuke travels from Japan to London along with his legal assistant, Susato Mikotoba, and finds himself suddenly thrust into the role of a fully-fledged defense attorney, having to defend an entourage of individuals accused of murder in Britain’s highest court.

There are quite a few things to admire about Britain in the late 1800s, from scientific progress, to advances in communication and medicine, to developments in travel. But one area that Britain (and much of the world) struggled in was xenophobia. Victorian era Britain was very xenophobic, especially towards non-Western societies, which were often viewed as backwards or underdeveloped. Great Ace Attorney attempts to capture this; Ryunosuke often finds himself dismissed as being an uneducated Japanese boy, or someone who can’t handle his station because of his nationality. It even winds up serving as a significant plot point for one of the major British characters later on in the story.

And yet, the reviewer at Kotaku views this accurate depiction of the very real problems Britain had at the time as problematic. To quote the reviewer: “There is a startling amount of racism in this game. If you disregard the fact the series’ main concept is solving brutal murders, Ace Attorney games are pretty wholesome. It was truly shocking, to the point of distraction, to see all the anti-Asian racism casually bandied about.”

Opinions are certainly subjective. As a reviewer here myself, I know there are plenty of times when I don’t see eye to eye with readers, and even other writers. But I'd argue this drifts into the realm of unfair and perhaps downright silly criticism. Setting aside the statement claiming that Ace Attorney, a series that tackles issues such as depression, suicide, revenge, corruption, murder, and more, has always been very wholesome, this is one of the most off-the-mark critiques I've seen recently.

For what it's worth, the author does admit that the game is trying to capture a realistic depiction of Britain at the time. They also note, however, that “the amount of racism the game uses in order to be 'historically accurate' is a little over the top considering nothing else in this game has any claims to accuracy.” Which I would argue is a claim that simply doesn't hold water. Depictions of serious issues don’t suddenly become less valid because the story as a whole is not perfectly realistic elsewhere. Django Unchained’s horrific depictions of racism in the US are not suddenly undermined because the end leans in heavily towards some unrealistic action set pieces. And this holds especially true for games, which will almost certainly never abide by anything close to perfect realism, because interesting game mechanics often require a significant departure from reality.

What’s perhaps stranger is that the author says this about a story written by Japanese individuals. Perhaps this claim would hold some credibility if the story were written by a person who wasn’t already keenly aware of the relevant social impacts, but this is a narrative written by descendants of those who experienced xenophobia like this first hand. If there was literally anyone to write this story, it would be a Japanese development team. Shu Takumi and co did a fantastic job with it.

Get past those arguments and we can see this critique for what it really is: the author dislikes the realistic portrayal of xenophobia because it makes them feel uncomfortable. They essentially admit as much by saying that if a couple of characters they liked had engaged in similar xenophobia, they would have stopped playing. And that is probably the truly concerning part of all this; as viewers, some of us may not have progressed to the point where we can handle things that make us feel uncomfortable. We can’t grapple with truly difficult or challenging concepts that hit close to home because they make us face realities we’d rather not be reminded of. This is a mindset that prefers to just bury its head in the sand rather than be challenged by the regrettable history we all share.

While this is thankfully, as far as I can tell, the only major games outlet to publish a piece on it, the author is far from the only person to share this outlook. Plenty of voices on social media have expressed similar views, with some going so far as to harass members of the development and localization teams on Twitter. Besides how childish this is, it demonstrates the same, silly way of thinking; an inability to even be willing to confront hard truths.

At some level, complaining about social media reactions is silly. The nature of the internet guarantees there will inevitably be ludicrous takes, many by people just looking to get a reaction. But I’d posit that this review, and these people, aren’t looking to get a rise out of readers. They’re genuinely expressing what they believe. A large portion of the gaming (and film) community just refuses to acknowledge something that makes them uncomfortable. Hopefully, like the many of the characters in Great Ace Attorney who realize their initial assumptions about Ryunosuke were wrong, we as a medium will also grow out of this and be ready to tackle challenging topics more consistently.

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psychicscubadiver (on 19 September 2021)

Articles like that one from Kotaku are why the internet mocks 'game journalists'.

  • +14
Jumpin psychicscubadiver (on 20 September 2021)

These sorts of articles are common? I wasn’t aware. What are other examples?

  • 0
youngbr (on 18 September 2021)

What happened to just enjoy games?
People nowadays are pathetic trying to stir stupid things.

  • +10
Medisti (on 20 September 2021)

It's Kotaku. This article may as well have been titled "Kotaku published an article" and we all would have inherently known that every mark was missed.

  • +8
Dante9 (on 20 September 2021)

It's a weird thing, the word racism is being tossed around today so much that it doesn't really mean anything anymore. At the same time, these people are trying to hush hush and scrub away all examples of actual racism from the past, so that pretty soon we won't recognize real racism if we see it.
Besides that, this game is made by Japanese people. If they want to portray historical racism from their point of view, cesspools like Kotaku should have nothing to say about that.

  • +5
JuliusHackebeil Dante9 (on 20 September 2021)

I largely agree. But I don't think that japanese people are automatically more qualified or should be under less scrutiny because it is their ancestors who faced that racism. I would presume the goings on of the time are archived in much greater abundance in english, rather than japanese. Insofar japanese people might have a harder time researching what actually went down in yesteryears Britain.

  • 0
Walbert (on 21 September 2021)

Those that constantly beat on about racism are usually the actual racists.

  • +4
foxmccloud64 (on 27 September 2021)

Great comment on the subject, trying close oneself to sensitive themes is one thing but total dismissal of works like books, videogame, movies and other expresions because they touch on such themes or use them to setup part of the history or the enviroment, is utter nonsense, and as user Dante9 put it:

"It's a weird thing, the word racism is being tossed around today so much that it doesn't really mean anything anymore. At the same time, these people are trying to hush hush and scrub away all examples of actual racism from the past, so that pretty soon we won't recognize real racism if we see it."

People need to be informed to be able to discern when a sensitive theme is being used as grounds for storytelling, research, or other, and when its truly hate propaganda for the real world, Fire Emblem path of Radiance series, besides the common war, conflict and betrayal themes on the series, was very heavy on the themes of racism, slavery and genocide to the fictional Laguz race, things our protagonists are trying to overcome in several ways while "saving the world", that reviewer from Kotaku may be one of those people that analyzes things rather superficially, while never understanding why those things are relevant to such storytelling, as Ace attorney also touches on sensitive themes, if i rememeber, all the cases are murders.

We can't just take everything questionable made by humanity and sweep it under the carpet, or people could start to forget and by ignorance or taking advantage of this, begin to champion this abhorrent actions.

  • 0
JuliusHackebeil (on 20 September 2021)

I think Schindlers List was a really good movie, but my delicate sensebilities could do without all the racism. I get that it is part of european history, but I still think it is a worse movie because of it. If Schindler turned out racist too, I would have stopped watching.

  • 0
Kakadu18 JuliusHackebeil (on 20 September 2021)

Good one.

  • +3
sundin13 (on 18 September 2021)

I feel like this brings us to the question of objectivity in reviews and how important that concept should be. To me, if a part of a game decreased your enjoyment of the game, there is nothing wrong with calling it out. As such, I see nothing inherently wrong with bringing up or criticizing a game's use of racism as a plot-point. I don't think it should be hard to imagine this detracting from the experience for some people, especially for Ace Attorney, a series which in my experience, isn't really designed around making the players uncomfortable. It is a fun, whacky series that doesn't take itself too seriously. To take a principled stand about how the gaming community refused to acknowledge things which make them uncomfortable is a bit of a weird take imo.

Anyways, but does that make it a flaw in the game? Personally, I'd say "no", but I feel like the review does a pretty good job of framing this criticism in a way which allows individuals reading to make their own decisions on how it would likely affect their enjoyment of the game. No score is given, so you largely have to actually read the review to get any value from it and from there it should be easy for a reader to determine whether this criticism would apply to their own experience.

Basically, what I'm saying is that I would disagree with someone asserting that a game is bad because of this, but I don't believe that is what this review does, so I see no problem with their handling of this topic.

  • 0
MTZehvor sundin13 (on 18 September 2021)

I do want to push back on some of this

"especially for Ace Attorney, a series which in my experience, isn't really designed around making the players uncomfortable. It is a fun, whacky series that doesn't take itself too seriously."

I...can't say I agree with that description of Ace Attorney at all. Yes, the series has plenty of light hearted moments, but it's also incredibly dark at times. Even setting aside that every case involves murder, it also covers themes of revenge, depression, suicide, broken families, coercion, psychological abuse, childhood trauma, moving on from the death of loved ones, and more. Without wishing to spoil too much, there's a scene in one game where a child's blood covered face is shown and it's initially implied that the blood came from them unintentionally cutting their mother apart with a machine designed to disassemble robots. Ace Attorney is exceptionally dark at points.

I'd posit that if you're familiar with Ace Attorney, you should expect it to be dealing with some challenging material. You should expect it to make you feel uncomfortable at points. If racism had become a sudden focal point of, say, the story of a Mario or Kirby game, titles whose stories are consistently very upbeat affairs that don't really deal with challenging themes, I could probably see an argument for it being an awkward tonal shift there. But to play through the prior games and be fine with all of the darker themes that are covered there, and then to suddenly put your foot down when the game takes an attempt at addressing racism, does imo speak to a mindset that we're just not ready to tackle this one particular theme.

  • +4
sundin13 MTZehvor (on 19 September 2021)

Alright, and that is entirely fair for you. If you are cool with it than you can read their review and say "I don't think this would bother me" and move on. For others, it may bother them and they can read the review and say "I think this would bother me" and decide from there whether to play the game. That seems to me to be the point of a review.

Now, I haven't played every game in the series, but from what I've played from the series, it has all been pretty light. While it does have certain "dark" events take place, it generally handles them in a light and fun way. If other games take exceptionally dark turns, that too should be mentioned in a review so people can make an informed decision on whether that is what they are looking for.

  • -3
MTZehvor sundin13 (on 19 September 2021)

"That seems to me to be the point of a review."

Yes and no, I think. Reviews are obviously designed to help others make up their mind, but they do that by a reviewer expressing what they believe is good or bad within a game. And I'd posit that what the reviewer has done here has gone well beyond just saying "racism exists in this game, everyone be aware." After all, the reviewer themselves states that if two specific characters had engaged in this behavior too, they would have put down the game. They have specific criticisms about how they feel the theme could have been tackled better, and how they would have liked the main characters to respond to the British characters that engage in it.

I have no problem with someone coming out and saying "there are sensitive topics in a game, so be prepared for it." I think that's completely reasonable. But when it drifts into the territory of actively critiquing its inclusion at all, I think that does raise an eyebrow for me.

Because, while yes, at the end of the day, a review is just your subjective critique, and it isn't any more "objectively" wrong for someone to complain about the inclusion of racism as a theme than it is to complain about difficulty or some such, I don't think that's the issue. The question here isn't one of what qualifies as as a valid critique in a review, it's more "what does it say about us that we're completely fine with a series dealing with suicide, depression, mental trauma, and more, but racism is what bothers us." Perhaps this speaks to a larger issue, but Western society has so much to avoid addressing the issue of racism and its effects on the affected people, and to whitewash the history of racism, because we're not "comfortable" with it or the likes. Seeing a similar attitude taken with games is what I find concerning.

  • +5